To Be As Safe As Possible, Self-Driving Cars Will Be Programmed To Kill

Would you buy a self-driving car that could be programmed to ‘sacrifice’ the driver?

Every week, we’re privy to newer and newer stories that suggest the age of autonomous or “self-driving” cars is nearing. With the promise of leisurely riding to and from work also comes the expectation that putting cameras, computers, and machines in charge will make the roads safer.

And it undoubtedly will.

But as we near the reality of self-driving cars, we’re also reminded that machines are cold and calculating. Their decisions will not be based on emotion, but on preprogrammed logic. So now ethicists, engineers, programmers, consumers, and lawmakers are all faced with the question of “What happens when harm is inevitable in a crash?” Who does the car decide to save?

There have been countless scenarios presented that explain the conundrum, but most exist as some derivation of “a car is speeding out of control on a mountain road as children cross the street. The car must decide whether it is to continue into the pedestrians, likely killing several, or veer off a cliff, ensuring the death of the driver.”

It’s known colloquially as the “trolley problem.”

It’s not a very fun scenario to imagine, but when we put our lives in the hands of computers, such scenarios are what dictate the relationship between man and machine.

It’s a funny notion to think of someone handing over money to buy an “improved” self-driving car which also could decide to kill you, but the utilitarian approach dictates this would be the case. You would still be far safer in daily driving at the mercy of a machine, but people ARE thinking about this.

In order to get ahead of the discussion and controversy, Mercedes has already gone on record saying that its cars will protect passengers, not bystanders. Good news for Mercedes owners, but if you happen to be crossing the street while an autonomous Benz is heading your way, you might want to hurry to the other side, just in case.

No matter which way the public and programmers lean, it’s inevitable that cars will make a decision to kill someone. Just who that someone is remains to be seen.

NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

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